Deer-Tolerant Plants for Rock Gardens

Taking the Path of Least Resistance: Planting What Bambi Doesn't Like

Closeup of prickly pear cactus in bloom.
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Landscapers typically select drought-tolerant vegetation when designing rock gardens, but in regions where Bambi is an issue, your rock garden should also contain deer-tolerant plants. Below I discuss some perennials that should aid you in your pest-control measures. These stalwarts handle both drought and Bambi pretty well, and they can be grown most anywhere in the continental U.S. (and across corresponding temperate zones). If you are not willing and/or able to install fencing, then at least growing what does not appeal to Bambi's taste buds may help keep these pests from eating up your rock garden vegetation.

When we speak of drought-tolerant vegetation for rock gardens, we are usually referring to two different characteristics at the same time. One characteristic is the ability to thrive in dry soils. The other is a preference for sunny conditions. Not that some members of the drought-tolerant tribe can't grow in shade; but more often than not they are sought for areas with lots of sun but little water.

Species native to your region will often thrive in rock gardens. Problem is, people often do not find them attractive enough to grow them in their rock gardens. Here is a short list of suitable perennials that are attractive and can be readily found for sale at nurseries:

  1. Hens and chicks
  2. Stonecrop
  3. Prickly pear cactus
  4. Lamb's ears
  5. Purple wood spurge

Below, I offer a brief description of each of the plants listed above; click on the links offered to read about a particular plant in greater detail.

Bambi Won't Eat These 5 (Well, Usually) 

Hens and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum) is a deer-tolerant or "deer-resistant" plant that forms attractive rosettes. Its succulent leaves mass together to form short, compact mounds. Hens and chicks does bloom, but the plant is grown for its foliage, not for this negligible, spiky flower. The tiny "chick" plants grow at the base of the "hen," or main plant. Detach the chicks and grow them elsewhere if propagation is desired. Otherwise, just let them be, and they will form a dense mat that essentially serves as a ground cover.

A similar group of deer-tolerant plants are the stonecrops (Sedum), for instance, Angelina sedum and Autumn Joy sedum. Stonecrop plants are a perennial favorite in rock gardens, as the "stone" in the name would suggest. Stonecrop's foliage consists of succulent leaves in whorls. The leaves are sometimes variegated and can range in color from bluish-green or greenish-yellow to reddish-pink or almost off-white.

Unlike hens and chicks, stonecrop produces a flower well worth growing in its own right. Stonecrop's flowers can be yellow, orange, red, pink, or white. The flowers usually bloom in clusters above the foliage.

Barbed-wire fences may be effective in controlling Bambi if they are tall enough. But why not put the barbed-wire right on the plant you need to protect? Well, that is just what prickly pear cactus does. Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia compressa) grows to be about 6-14 inches tall. It bears showy yellow flowers, 2-3 inches in diameter, as well as those menacing spines. A prickly pear cactus in bloom positioned next to a red hen and chicks plant makes for a striking rock garden tandem. This is the only cactus found widely in the eastern United States.

But your choices for deer-tolerant plants in rock gardens are not restricted to cacti and succulents. Lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) provides wonderful texture in rock gardens and spreads readily. Lamb's ear plants produce light purple flowers on tall spikes. Their silvery foliage has a velvety texture, which is how lamb's ears got its name. Apparently this same texture is unpalatable to Bambi and makes lamb's ears a deer-tolerant plant.

There are all kinds of reasons why Bambi may decide not to eat a particular plant. Besides off-putting textures and the presence of spines, toxicity can be a deterrent. Such is the case with purple wood spurge. Of course, it is not ideal having poisonous plants in the landscape if young children will be playing there (or if you have pets that go outside). Another drawback with purple wood spurge is that it tends to spread to areas of the yard where you do not want it to grow. But if neither of those drawbacks are insurmountable obstacles for you, then this perennial can be an interesting one to observe growing from season to season.

Grow these attractive, drought-tolerant, deer-tolerant plants in a well-drained soil with full sun, and you should have a perennial rock garden envied by all your neighbors except Bambi.